There’s an image in the popular imagination of the yoga instructor as a patient, imperturbable, blissed-out soul. That certainly wasn’t my first yoga instructor, who as I mentioned was Bikram Choudhury, the bad boy of yoga himself. This was in the early 1970s, when I was a little kid, Richard Nixon was president and Bikram was a bombastic competitive weightlifter and yogi fresh from Calcutta. He had a “yoga college” in the Queen Emma Building downtown, and my mother took me to his classes. Sometimes we were the only students, doing Cobra, Locust, Half-Moon and Shoulder Stands on our homemade foam rubber mats. Bikram’s teaching style was an alarming mixture of boasting about himself and browbeating us, with just enough encouragement tossed in that I didn’t totally hate him. He pushed us to get as deeply into poses as possible, telling us that Americans didn’t know how to breathe, that our joints were like concrete and that we only had five seconds left in this Cobra, so we’d better push deeper!
It was hell, although afterward I always felt great—all loose, tall and clear-headed. But those glimpses of what yoga had to offer were nothing compared with the superhuman abilities yoga had bestowed upon Bikram. In his lilting English he said he did not need to eat or sleep, that neither extreme heat nor cold bothered him, that he was actually fireproof not to mention bulletproof and that he was, in fact, the strongest man on Earth. He had no use for Western medicine because he could cure diseases with yoga, and if we didn’t believe him we could ask the scientists who had studied him or the world leaders he had healed. We could ask Richard Nixon, who might have been a one-legged president if not for Bikram.
None of Nixon’s biographers mention Bikram, nor does Nixon in his autobiography, but in Bikram’s own autobiography he recounts the story of his experience curing Nixon. “On one of my trips [to Hawai‘i] I was summoned to Oahu, where I was met by the governor of Hawaii and a bevy of Secret Service agents,” he writes. “I was whisked away in a stretch limousine to a hotel, where, on the sixth floor, I was presented to the U.S. president Richard Nixon. He was suffering from advanced thrombophlebitis in his left leg, lying in bed in excruciating pain and unable to walk. … I said, ‘Piece of cake. Bring me some Epsom salts.’” Bikram put Nixon and the salts in a hot bath and had the president do three days of hot water yoga. The treatment worked, the pain disappeared forever and a grateful leader of the free world personally handed Bikram his green card.
Among those who practice yoga in India are the ascetic sadhus, who renounce the material world, wander the mountains and forests and live in caves and temples. In India yoga is also associated with siddhis, or supernatural powers, such as clairvoyance, shape-shifting and imperviousness to thirst, hunger and temperature. Bikram, who lives in Beverly Hills and flaunts his diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and his fleet of Rolls-Royces, is certainly no sadhu. But some of his most over-the-top assertions do start to make sense in the context of yoga’s mystic tradition.